When we launched Deserter a year ago, business meetings were not high on the agenda, to say the least. Our aims were simple: Get out, drink booze, write, repeat. Indeed, avoiding any sort of meetings was one of the very reasons for starting the site in the first place. Odd, then, that on a bright March morning earlier this year, Dirty South and I found ourselves in Penge, heading for just such a gathering.
But this meeting was different. This meeting was in a brewery.
We’d been racking our tiny brains for something we could do to mark a year of Deserter, something that perhaps our dear readers could enjoy too. Our sorry list read: Keyrings, postcards, erm – to which I had contributed the ‘erm’.
‘Maybe we should focus on doing something we like,’ I said to Dirty South as we stood scratching our heads outside The Rake in Borough Market one afternoon.
‘That’s easy to say, but what do we like?’ said Dirty South.
‘Chips?’ I said.
‘Butter?’ countered Dirty South, taking a draught of finest ale. That’s when it hit me. OMG, it was obvs. It was staring us in the face.
‘Maybe the answer is right in front of you,’ I said, and I lowered my voice: ‘In your hand.’
‘Of course,’ said Dirty South. ‘Fags.’
Having established I was talking about beer, the conversation, as it so often does these days, turned to brewers.
In case you’ve been in the slammer or, worse, on a diet, we are in the midst of a microbrewing revolution. An old boy I got talking to recently in Eltham’s The Long Pond micropub, summed it up when he said, ‘I’ve been drinking beer for 60 years and there has never been a better time for it’. Blessed are the beer-drinkers.
Having enjoyed the delicious wares of so many of our wonderful local brewers – Brixton, Brick, Kernel, Clarkshaw’s, London Beer Lab, Brew by Numbers, Hop Stuff, to name just a few – we would have been forgiven for being paralysed by choice when it came to approaching a potential brewing partner. But in fact, we both knew immediately who we should talk to.
Sitting outside The Commercial in Herne Hill a couple of years ago I overheard a conversation between two men on the adjoining table.
‘Did you see that a little beer bar has opened up in an old shop in Denmark Hill?’ said a disembodied voice and my ears pricked up. Denmark Hill is my manor. I nudged Mrs Raider and we listened for details. ‘Lovely place. The beer is amazing, poured straight from the cask.’
‘Sounds good,’ said his mate. ‘Why don’t we head up there?’
‘Oh, hang on, what am I talking about,’ said the first guy. ‘Not Denmark Hill – Gipsy Hill. Gipsy Hill.’
Curses! So close. But nevertheless the information stayed with me and a few days later I persuaded a couple of chums to accompany me to Gipsy Hill after the football, to visit a bar that had been recommended in an overheard conversation. That bar was Beer Rebellion.
I liked that bar. I liked it so much I went back the following day with the wife, and the day after that on my own. I sought out nodding acquaintances to go there with, I had meetings in there, I ate dinner there, I took my builder there, I took my mechanic there, I made Ivan Osman get on a plane and come back from New Zealand to go there… Oh, I liked that bar alright.
It was intimate, people chatted, the staff were friendly and they came and stood with you amongst the casks. The bar had taken the best aspects of the new micropubs and added a sprinkle of youth, a soupçon of music, and a dash of grub. But it also sold the most excellent beer, made (mostly) by Late Knights Brewery, who also ran the place. There was Crack of Dawn that Dirty South wanted to drink forever; there was a Polish IPA that, had we been wearing any, would have blown off our socks; there was Peckham Rye IPA and the mighty Wormcatcher, recently acclaimed as one of Britain’s finest beers.
We wrote about that first Beer Rebellion and when they opened more bars, we wrote about them, too, even devising a bespoke ‘beer triangle‘ to take them all in. You could say we were a little obsessed. And now we were on our way to Late Knights HQ.
So, yes, we were meeting people with titles like Managing Director and Operations Manager, but it was fine, it was OK, because they were at Late Knights Brewery.
As it turned out the meeting was one of the most efficient it’s been my pleasure to attend.
‘We love your beers,’ we said, taking a seat.
‘We love Deserter,’ said Steve, the MD.
‘We’re thinking about a Deserter beer,’ we said.
‘Great, let’s do it,’ said Ben, the Head of Ops, and we spent the rest of the allotted hour patting each other on the back and swapping drinking stories. We’d found the right people. If Steve and Ben had watched us heading back up Southey Street afterwards, they would have seen us high-five.
A month later we were back in the brewery for a brew day with Sam the brewer, who was to be our guide and mentor.
‘How much do you know about the brewing process?’ asked Sam as we set about a 50 litre test batch.
‘It’s fair to say we’re mainly end-users,’ said Dirty South and Sam, with the patience of a beery saint, gamely started us from the very beginning, which, FYI, is water and a big tin can.
We discussed our favourite beers, local ones from the aforementioned breweries and those from further afield like Thornbridge’s blockbusting Jaipur, St Austell’s Proper Job with it’s malty backbone and American influence and the lip-smacking work of Dark Star and Kent breweries. We analysed the styles, we tasted malted barley, licked our fingers and spent an hour in the hop room breaking open and sniffing the sticky, oily buds, which made Dirty South giddy.
‘I think I’m drunk on hops,’ he said, which was funny because soon he would be drunk on beer. We used the breaks in the various stages of the process to taste everything in the warehouse, experimented with throwing different hops into beers and every now and again broke off to attend to our recipe. It was a bit like being in Breaking Bad, if Walter and Jesse had been allowed to lick the spoons.
As the sweet, malty wort was brought to the boil the brewery was filled with the most delicious aroma.
‘If only we could bottle it,’ I said.
‘I think that’s the idea, mate,’ said Dirty South.
Three weeks later we reconvened with Sam, Ben and head brewer, Mik, to taste the results of our labour; the moment of truth.
Our aim had been to offer some of the tropical intensity of American hops but without the super-bitter after-taste. To this end, we’d gone for a traditional malty IPA-style base-note and added a variety of US hops throughout the process to give a floral nose and a fruity zing on the tongue that gives way to a classic rounded finish.
The sort of pint, in short, that even at 5.5% you’ll certainly have one of, just to remind you how special you are. And then another, perhaps, to make sure it wasn’t a fluke. And maybe one more because you deserve it. And so on.
Did we pull it off? Well, there’s only one way to find out: